Having met my share of bumptious foxes over the years, and incurable charlatans, I was pretty sure I knew where everything would end up when a representative from the Winds of Change Trading Company washed ashore in Mini Grey’s Three by the Sea – somewhere, after ruses are hatched and uncovered, and lessons are learned, that looked pretty much like the beginning.
And I have to say, I didn’t even mind. This is what happens when an author and illustrator can make even the most predictable outcomes seem somehow surprising: after all, you knew what was likely to happen when an egg set out to prove itself from the top of a building in the forthrightly titled Egg Drop, yet who would have guessed this should prove finally so fulfilling? Or the star-crossed place settings in Grey’s The Adventures or the Dish and the Spoon, their vaudeville days behind them, the motor cars and fur coats, the stick-ups and getaways, hard time and heartbreak – we’ve seen this story before, and yet I hardly know whether to laugh or cry at their junk shop reunion:
“Dish?” I whispered. “Is that you?”
“Don’t look at me, Spoon,” she wept. “I am old and cracked, and my glaze is crazed.”
“Dish,” I said, “you look just the same as you did the June night we ran away.”
Is this book even fitting for children?
Who cares! And you may quote me if you like: We can tangle ourselves into pretzels trying to figure out how to build, to edify and enlighten the perfect little human, or we can take our chances with whatever catches our fancy as knowing, feeling, still-hankering adult readers. Or we can heave a great sigh every time we’re approached with Purplicious. Read in slightly scary baby voices, and giant size emotions. Make dinner, or many dinners, and tweet about them, good lord, just about anything rather than supplicate ourselves to the cause of children’s literacy.
Anyway, back to the beach where that stranger arrives bearing a briefcase full of suspiciously targeted enticements, plus a spiffy change of clothes. It’s not a great beach. Years of planting the garden with nothing but dog bones also do not enhance the broader landscape, and tossing the garbage out onto the front yard, in fact the entire domestic situation reminds me vaguely of the decade I spent between moving away from one family and starting a family of my own. Did the bathroom clean itself? It must have. I think I also remember heating things in pots and calling it cooking, like the mouse does here with cheese, and I think I lived happily enough, though many of the particulars seem objectionable to me now.
Something like this realization dawns between the members of this tranquil, unpretty community when the shipwrecked stranger begins to spread his seeds of doubt. These include the regular innuendo, but also some ambitious looking cookbooks, a preening, spiky collar for the dog, and finally, literally seeds – marjoram, savory, dill – in the wake of his sudden disappearance, which is every bit as mysterious as the night he arrived. In between, he plays the boorish house guest, fissures lead to outbursts (“What about the garden? When did we say we wanted a bone garden?”), and daring rescues must be attempted to patch things up, still the compromises that end up amounting (a bone and herb garden, sardine and cheese fondue) are so hilariously minor you have to wonder if this wasn’t meant to confound our expectations all along. The fox wasn’t fiendish, wasn’t gluttonous, wasn’t even trying to sell us something. “It’s absolutely free,” he keeps repeating about his interventions, though who would have guessed that should also include the cost of getting rid of him?